October 1st to November 30th 1918, the lead-in to Armistice Day and then later to the liberation of Brussels. The Account of Captain Bryan Evers Sharwood-Smith 48 Squadron RAF (19 years old)
We had been asked to look out for a bomber squadron during our patrol and to help them if they were attacked on their way back from a raid. We saw the returning bombers as we reached the lines. They were being harried and savaged by swarms of enemy fighters, between thirty and forty in number. It was not a pretty sight. Two bombers spinning down out of control, another and two Fokkers in flames. We dived down towards them and the flight was broken up in the ensuing flurry. Other British fighters soon joined in and the enemy dropped away towards their own aerodromes. When we reformed, the flight commander was no longer with us. No one had seen what had happened. Later we learned that he had crashed and been taken prisoner. Beck had died of wounds. So, it was with no great joy that I took over in acting charge of a flight that I was to lead for many more months. I continued with this role until the war ended, and then as part of the allied occupation force on the Rhine and finally as we moved to the Indian Frontier.
Our daily round continued much as before, though we now carried out patrols, each flight commander leading the squadron in turn. Our normal objectives lay far beyond the lines and the opposition adjusted their tactics accordingly. They massed in superior force above and behind the patrol and attacked the rear machines or dived vertically, straight through the formation, to break it up and pick off the stragglers. In fact, they were looking for just the sort of straggler that I had been, in my inexperience, nine months earlier. Now and again we became more fortunate as we became ourselves the hunters. My new observer was Sergeant Perkin, a young, stolid and reliable Midlander from Birmingham. We were well suited to each other and I felt quite confident with him behind me.
We had become a very tired squadron…but…if we were asked to bomb Tournai, we bombed Tournai, whatever the opposition and, if photographs were required of Oudenarde, those photographs would be taken. Park’s calm and decisive personality held us together and we battled on stoically. The Mess was quieter now at night but there was never the lack of a cheerful grin nor a readiness to throw a party. Usually we shared these evenings with 206 Bomber Squadron who we often escorted on long flights and more distant raids.
By now the war on the ground was going all our way and on October 23rd we flew forward to take over our first abandoned German airfield. It was at Rekkem, a Flemish village just across the Belgian Border near Menin, well beyond the shell stricken mud and morass of the three year old battlefield in front of Ypres. The retreating enemy had left an imaginatively mean selection of booby traps behind them. As I took over our new hangar and quarters in company with my flight sergeant we were both very relieved that nothing blew up in our faces. Others were not so lucky.
Our sleeping quarters had been stripped of everything of value, so we made ourselves comfortable by salvaging furniture and fittings from the shell shattered cottages nearby. These had all been enemy billets and their former occupants had left them filthy and louse ridden, demonstrating, for good measure, the peculiar quality of their humour by defaecating in drawers and on mattresses.
By the beginning of November, the British Divisions ahead of us were advancing rapidly against sporadic though sometimes determined resistance. In the air although only occasionally molested, we were always on the alert as. Now and again, groups of two or three Fokkers, aggressive to the end, would dive out of the sun, flying onto and through us, guns spitting viciously
On November 10th, when we were leaving the Mess after dinner, a motor cyclist dispatch rider drove up to the office. A few minutes later the CO called us together to tell us that an Armistice had been signed. It would come into operation at eleven o’clock the following morning. He added the not so welcome piece of information that my flight would carry out its line patrol from ten-thirty, as already arranged. Wild festivities followed and some of us, now looking back, in a blur of memories, went out to visit neighbouring squadrons. Our own Mess had been drunk dry.
At ten-thirty next morning I was over the line on the far side of the ScheIdt with a slightly thick head and no companions for we had come through some heavy patches of cloud and the two new pilots who should have been with me had lost contact. As eleven o’clock drew near I found myself over the French speaking part of Belgium, between the ancient town of Ath and the City of Tournai. The moment that the minute hand of the clock in my cockpit touched the hour I contentedly fired eleven single shots on my Vickers machine gun, before treating myself and anyone who might have been watching to a valedictory ‘loop’ and returned home.
We took some time to adjust ourselves to the sudden change in our lives. We had risen each morning day after day, week after week and month after month to what, though we did not let our minds dwell upon it, might have been our last patrol. We found it difficult to realise that it was all over.
From Rekkem we found some transport and paid a couple of evening visits to Lille. Before the Germans had moved out a few days earlier we had decided to put on a show of strength, which amounted to my leading the Flight over the city at roof top level. There had been many thousands of people in the streets waving and cheering, but every single one seemed to be clothed in black. Our first impressions were not altered as we drove in along the greasy cobbled streets. It was a sad city. For four years the inhabitants had lived within sound of the guns, awaiting the relieving armies that never seemed to come any closer. Not so Brussels, the main German leave centre on the Northern front. I determined to be the first British pilot to land there, if I could. My first attempt on November 22nd failed because two other roaming Bristols from another flight, spotted my flight commanders streamers and attached themselves, despite my attempts to shake them off. Two days later I took Allen, my South African deputy leader, in the observers seat and tried again. This time we flew at ground level the whole way, digressing to inspect the field of Waterloo, a battle that had always fascinated me. I had last visited it with my father when I was a boy of twelve years old.
From Waterloo we slipped into Evers, my family namesake and the Brussels airfield, to find that we had just lost the race to get there first; three Sopwith Snipes were just taking off. As we wandered round inspecting the lines of abandoned German aircraft, a young Belgian Air Force officer called across to us, testing our French.
‘’Vous connaissez quelqu’un à Bruxelles, d’you know anyone in Brussels?’’
‘’Non pas un seul, not a soul!’’
‘’Je voudrais vous inviter à déjeuner avec ma famille, come to lunch with the family then.’’
There was no room in their car but there was a tram service that would take us into the heart of the city. Indeed, it was a warm-hearted offer from a family only just re-united with their son after four years of anxious separation. The Dubosts lived in a lovely house in the Avenue des Beaux Arts. Monsieur Dubost senior, we gathered, was a Senator and in celebration of the Armistice Madame had arranged a big family occasion. It was impossible not to sense the heart beating a bit faster as we noticed the arresting charm of the Dubost daughters and their female cousins, who were after all, of our generation. Afterwards we wandered through the streets, to be at once surrounded by dancing crowds of excited young people. The men shook us by the hand, the girls embraced us and showered us with flowers. Delighted, but exhausted, by the warmth of our welcome, we sought refuge in a cafe in search of tea. But time had passed quickly and we suddenly realised that returning to Rekkem before nightfall would be difficult,
Our apprehensions were only too well founded but, by racing back at tree top level in the gathering darkness, we reached home just in time to land while we could just still see. Night flying airfields alone had flare paths and, in any case, we were not trained in night landing.